The Chicago Bears entered their week 15 contest versus the Packers needing a win to stay alive in the NFC North race as well as the playoff standings. The Bears had lost four of their last five games, and a fifth loss in six would not only strike a blow to their playoff chances, but it would also place head coach Lovie Smith squarely on the hot seat.
Fast forward to yesterday: The Bears lost…again (GB 21, Chi 13). After starting the year at 7-1, they now sit at 8-6 and look like a team that doesn’t deserve to qualify for the post-season. The defense is gassed. The offense has no identity or consistency. And what’s worse? The coaches can’t figure out how to fix it. Is Lovie to blame? Has he done enough in his nine years as head coach of the Bears to deserve the benefit of the doubt?
Lovie Smith replaced former Bears coach Dick Jauron in 2004 after Jauron had back-to-back losing seasons in 2002 and 2003 (4-12, 7-9). Lovie was a highly sought after coaching candidate during his time as the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, but his hire was curious to the Chicago fan base that was expecting a bigger name to take the reigns.
Lovie didn’t hesitate to make a strong statement as the Bears head coach. During his introductory press conference, he proclaimed that his number one goal would be to beat Green Bay; a smart maneuver to win over the fans and generate excitement for the new regime. But after yesterday’s defeat, the Bears have lost their last six attempts at accomplishing that number one priority.
During the nine years of the Lovie Smith-era, the Bears have won 79 games while losing 63 (55% win percentage). Four of his eight completed seasons have been above .500, with 2012 being no worse than an 8-8 finish. It’s more than likely that the Bears will win at least one of their last two games and end above .500 for the fifth time in Lovie’s tenure.
In the seasons that Lovie Smith has guided the Bears to a winning record, the results have been impressive. Lovie’s Bears have won the NFC North three times (’05, ’06, ’10), and the Bears captured the NFC Championship in 2006. Smith fell short against his mentor Tony Dungy’s Colts in Super Bowl XLI, which was only the second Super Bowl appearance in Chicago’s franchise history.
The 2011 season started much like this year in that the Bears were 7-3 after ten games and in the discussion as one of the contenders in the NFC. That is, until Jay Cutler got injured. The Bears finished 1-5, ending the year at 8-8 and Jerry Angelo took the hit for the roster’s putrid QB depth. He was fired at season’s end. New GM Phil Emery immediately expressed his confidence in Lovie Smith even though conventional wisdom suggests that a new GM wants “their” guy at head coach. Many presumed that 2012 would go a long way in defining the Lovie Smith/Phil Emery relationship.
2012 has been one of the more disappointing seasons for the Chicago Bears. You just don’t expect to free-fall from a 7-1 start without some kind of glaring or obvious explanation. The Bears have been relatively healthy, with the injuries to Brian Urlacher and Tim Jennings coming only recently. The issues with the Offensive Line were present as far back as last season and were there when the team was 7-1. So, you can’t blame that group for this 1-5 skid. Jay Cutler has been “ok”; he hasn’t been a franchise-changing field general, but he also isn’t losing games. In fact, it appears as if the Bears defense, a unit that was being compared to some of the NFL’s greatest, has failed to maintain their early-season level of play. They look gassed. They look fatigued. They look soft.
Is Lovie to blame for the defense’s struggles? Well, the buck stops with him. He’s a defensive-minded coach, and it’s the responsibility of the head coach to right the ship. Lovie tried lightening the work week leading up to the Green Bay game, and while the unit played better, they failed to make critical stops on both 3rd and 4th downs.
Lovie Smith is a good man. He coaches with class and dignity, and respects his players, the fans, and the media. The NFL needs more men like him, but as is the case with any longstanding regime, sometimes a change is needed. In Chicago, the time for change appears to be now. Lovie Smith has done some really good things for the Bears and has brought a moderate level of success to Chicago. However, if the Chicago Bears fail to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season as a result of second-half collapses that Lovie and his staff couldn’t find a way to coach through, then a change has to be made.
If the Bears decided to part ways with Lovie Smith, there’s no doubt that he would land on his feet and resurface as a head coach in the NFL again. If, for example, the NY Jets decided to part ways with Rex Ryan? Who better to bring a new culture to the Jets than Lovie Smith? Lovie will be in demand. But he was given nearly a decade to run the show in Chicago, and it should come as no surprise if Phil Emery starts year 2 of his era as General Manager with a head coach that he hires rather than one that he inherited from old management.